Six games in and the Horns are starting to craft an identity. An identity that is, thankfully, a stark contrast from the opening salvo against Maryland and suggests a unit that, while not yet good enough to be considered among the league’s elite, probably has its best football ahead.
QB - B+
Sam Ehlinger has transformed his game from error-prone playmaking X factor freshman to steady sophomore veteran winner. He’s responsible for only three turnovers on the year (two interceptions against the Terps and a fumble against Tulsa) and given his load in the offense - he’s throwing or running it 46 times per game - that’s extraordinary ball protection. He also set a single season UT record for most passes consecutively attempted without an interception.
I’ve written before that Sam is a Rorschach test: what people see in him is as much about them as it is him. I see a very effective, if imperfect, QB with plenty of remaining upside. He leads the Horns in rushing touchdowns with 6 scores and continues to be an effective runner in the red zone, on 3rd/4th and short and against drop coverages on the QB draw. As a passer, he has had streaks of inaccuracy on some gimme throws, but his baseline execution has improved every game as the Longhorn passing game has evolved from effectively high school to college level in the space of a half dozen games. He’s doing a much better job of understanding when to bail from the pocket and when to hang in there. Sam is a creature of tempo who benefits from throwing on early downs and cutting it loose. The staff may have been a bit slow on the recognition there or still had memories of 2017.
To date, Texas lacks the ability to push the ball down the field for big chunks gains and that’s the next step for the offense to weaponize. Part of that is that our effective team speed is a lot different from our theoretical (Burt, Duvernay) team speed. Sam is taking care of the ball and his legs and toughness are a weapon in situational football, but 7.4 yards per attempt isn’t explosive. The receivers and play calling can help his cause, but recognition, scheming, and deep ball accuracy can help his own.
Keaontay Ingram has been a revelation. He’s a natural runner with immense gifts (vision, acceleration, lateral agility) that aren’t easily captured by a stopwatch. He’s also an adept pass catcher and willing blocker. Tre Watson has been a steady veteran and we should be grateful to have him. He runs harder than his size and his two touchdowns receiving (and obvious comfort in space) suggest that we’re leaving some meat on the bone there. Daniel Young has run hard in relief, but he has been supplanted as a primary runner for a two man backfield. Toneil Carter and Kyle Porter are likely exploring transfers and Kirk Johnson remains an unknown.
This is a much better backfield than last year and the grade will improve as Ingram steadily earns 15+ carries per game and both players get more involved as pass catchers. I think we can do a lot with them as LJH and CJ continue to draw attention and we leak Ingram and Watson outside to take easy yards in the passing game.
Texas has narrowed their WR rotation and it shows in the improved execution of the passing game, which has steadily ticked up since September. LJH and CJ are playing physical ball bullying smaller corners and have combined for 65 catches for 966 yards and 6 tds. Simple post-hitch-go route combos have become a staple and LJH in the slot is a problem without an easy solution for any defense when he runs good routes and catches the ball. CJ’s increased assertiveness is also notable. They’re playing at an A- level now after a rocky start, but Texas needs more from the supporting cast of Duvernay, Moore and Heard as field stretchers and horizontal complements to the Big Two. Perhaps a healthy John Burt with hands coated in pre-game molasses can give us some help over the back half of the schedule.
Andrew Beck has been a pleasant surprise as a competent pass catcher (13-121) and had his best blocking performance of the year against OU. He needs to build on that in the second half of Big 12 play, particularly in handling quick defenders in space and delivering punishment on undersized linebackers and hybrid safeties. Cade Brewer has been reduced by his knee injury.
OL - B-
If you measure a journey in the distance traveled, the Texas OL walked from Tibet to London over the spring and summer. This was a D- grade unit a year ago. Coaching and maturity matters. They’re doing a good job of getting body on body, aren’t giving a free go to pass rushers, and have significantly cut down on mental mistakes on the interior. Encouragingly, the OU game was the first where we’ve seen push at the point of attack rather than just occupying and screening, which was preventing the running game from popping big runs and limiting the upside of a slash and go runner like Watson. If they can start mauling people, this offense will transform. It remains to be seen. OU was Charmin soft.
Sam Cosmi is becoming a star at right tackle and is quickly becoming one of my favorite players. Calvin Anderson’s athleticism and football IQ have been a boon at left tackle against pass rushers, though he’s not a mauler at the point of attack. What a gift and a stabilizing force as a graduate transfer though. Can we get another one every year? Given the line’s athleticism outside, I’d like to see us a exploit it a bit more. Maybe that’s coming post-bye week. They need to cut down a little on penalties, particularly the senseless kind (don’t hold a guy who can’t make the play). The aggression penalties bother me a lot less.
This OL has its best days ahead as it coheres and faces the meat of Big 12 schedule. Depth remains a question mark as we likely only have 7 we’re comfortable playing (starters, plus Kerstetter, Okafor). Shack’s return is a very good thing if he continues to snap well.
Offensive Coaching - C
While we’re still basking in the glow of the offense’s ass-kicking against OU, the unit wasn’t ready for prime time against Maryland and had unacceptable lapses in execution against inferior defenses like Tulsa and Kansas State. We aced the mid-term, but we failed some early quizzes that drag down the average. In September, we were behind our peer groups in what we could handle and execute. Every week, the passing game has gained fluency, the unit is doing a better job of changing protections and plays, and the receivers are more comfortable making good decisions on option routes (and being allowed to run them). The staff may have also learned how to better deal with Drop 8 coverages, which seemed to mesmerize them in ways I can’t adequately explain.
The OU game was the first time all year where they actively attacked the opponent’s personnel and schemes purposefully rather than just “running our stuff” and made a real effort to cut Sam loose on early downs to throw the ball. Consequently, everything opened up. Facing my favorite whipping boy Mike Stoops (miss you already, Mikey) probably helped. Maybe that was the plan all along, but entire preceding halves of bullshit football suggest otherwise.
Herman’s offense is simple, but flexible enough to attack the defense when the offensive players feel confident/empowered to take ownership. That’s happening now. Why it didn’t happen a bit faster is a black box, but 5-1 is a good place to ruminate about it.